Judo for Life

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Judo for Life (Japan, 1963)
Sonny Chiba’s first martial arts film, a partially fictionalized judo biopic based on prominent judoka Shiro Saigo (Chiba), the second student of judo founder Jigoro Kano (Naoki Sugiura). Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata is based on the same character and shares some scenes, but Judo for Life focuses more on the martial arts philosophy and training, including scenes depicting how the protagonist learned his famous cat-like landing, coined the term judo, and trained with Tsunejiro Tomita (Hideo Mutota). There’s also a slight yakuza film influence (Theatre of Life had came out just 1.5 months prior). The port street ambush scene is found in both films, but in Judo for Life it’s not Kano but instead a travelling yakuza (Hideo Murata in a small supporting role) that jumps out of the rickshaw. Entertaining and beautifully old fashioned, one does however wish there were more shades of grey between good and evil, and a stronger ninkyo-like moral / honour conflict. Also, the ending melee has Chiba play the second fiddle to his master and box office draw Murata, who is misleadingly given first billing in the film and advertising materials.

– Note 1: the film spun off from a TV series of the same name (1962-1964) that focused on Jigoro Kano. Chiba was not in the series.
– Note 2: typical to the era, the character names have been modified, e.g. Rigoro Kano = Jigoro Kano, Shiro Hongo = Shiro Saigo, Tsunejiro Toda = Tsunejiro Tomita etc.
– Note 3: a sequel followed in 1964.

* Original title: Judo ichidai (柔道一代)
* Director: Kiyoshi Saeki
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (no subtitles)

Young judo fighter Sonny Chiba encounters yakuza Hideo Murata on the street. The same scene appears in Sanshiro Sugata but without the yakuza character.

Chiba enters Kano’s temple dojo.

Hongo (Saigo) learns his trademark cat-like movements from this stray cat. The same cat who witnessed Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris at Colosseum?

Hideo Murota as Kano’s 1st student Tsunejiro Toda = Tsunejiro Tomita. Always confusing when you have Hideo Murota and Hideo Murata in the same film…

Training with master Kano

Hongo vs. old jijutsu master. The same scene is in Sanshiro Sugata

Yoshiko Sakuma as old jujutsu master’s daughter Chiba falls in love with (but is too much of a gentleman to try any bedroom judo with). The character also appears in Sanshiro Sugata. Here in Murata’s hands.

Rinichi Yamamoto as rogue assistant instructor who becomes the bad guy.

Final battle against a karate-monk.

Rare English language trailer, which like the film’s poster and opening credits, gives Hideo Murata the top billing even though he only appears in maybe 4 or 5 scenes.

Hey, Clouds!

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Hey, Clouds! (Japan, 1965)

Charmingly cute and old fashioned Toei youth film with a slight musical swing and myriad of family / romance relationships. There’s the “Saijo family” with kids Jiro Okazaki, Ichiro Araki and Yoshiko Mita taking an initiative to pimp their single dad Isao Yamagata to the “Mishima family” mother Haruko Kato, who is a single parent to the super-cute daughters Chiyoko Honma and Fuemi Kashiyama. Okazaki is also friends with “Kuwabara family” rich kid Koji Ishizawa, who has begun suspecting his old man may have a bit more offspring than has been publicly announced. Perhaps the “Matsumiya orphans” Hiroyuki Ota and his sister Junko Fuji? And then, people start getting interested in patrilineage, falling in love, making friends etc. Thankfully there’s human relationship MacGyver senpai Sonny Chiba popping up every 20 minutes, always saying the right words (or grabbing a man and lifting him in the air). An entertaining, if conservative youth film, oddly enough based on a 1965 novel by Shintaro Ishihara who was better known for his rebellious work e.g. Crazed Fruit. My guess is the material may (also) have gone through a bit of a transformation in Toei and director Masaharu Segawa’s (Four Sisters) traditionally minded hands.

* Original title: Ooi kumo! (おゝい、雲!)
* Director: Masaharu Segawa
* Chiba’s role: Small (but not that small) supporting role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (no subtitles)

The “Saijo family” kids Jiro Okazaki, Ichiro Araki and Yoshiko Mita

Naoki Sugiura with Araki (who btw has become of of my fav actors)

Mishima daughters Chiyoko Honma and Fuemi Kashiyama

Human relationship MacGyver Sonny Chiba

Chiba and Junko Fuji

“Matsumiya orphans” Hiroyuki Ota and Junko Fuji.

“Kuwabara family” rich kid Koji Ishizawa

Violent Street

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Violent Street (Japan, 1963)

Decent yakuza lieutenant Ken Takakura tries to maintain peace between gangs while rivals and reckless subordinates (Shinjiro Ebara in full Hiroki Matsukata mode trying to make money with boxing and dirty gambling) give him hard time. This was one of the relatively few modern day ninkyo films (most were set in pre-WWII era), which lends to some interesting bits such as the “final walk” in contemporary milieu. Not especially well written, lacking the kind of strong honour/duty dilemma that is the backbone of the best ninkyo films, but there are many good scenes like a detailed yakuza ceremony in the opening and action packed ending. It’s also surprisingly sexy, without explicit nudity, with one of Ebara’s businesses being turning a traditional stage theatre into a strip joint. Sonny Chiba has a decent supporting role as an impulsive young yakuza holding grudge against Takakura’s gang. There’s no character development for him but Chiba acts well and gets enough screen time to make it the film’s third or fourth biggest role. The film is unrelated to the Hideo Gosha movie (1974) of the same title.

* Original title: Boryoku gai (暴力街)
* Director: Tsuneo Kobayashi
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: None / Review format: 35mm

Life of Blackmail

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Life of Blackmail (Japan, 1963)

Two kids and best friends (Tatsuo Umemiya and Sonny Chiba) go different paths, one becoming a gangster specializing in blackmailing and the other a policeman. Umemiya and Chiba share the top billing; however, it is Umemiya who gets the juicier role with most screen time as the blackmailer. It’s an entertaining modern day gangster film with an energetic score and young cast; however it feels a bit superficial as the script doesn’t really pit the two main characters against each other most of the time, which could have added psychological depth. The storyline is an adaptation of Shinji Fujiwara’s novel. Kinji Fukasaku directed a better version called Blackmail is My Life for Shochiku in 1968 with a vastly different rendering of the storyline. Chiba’s character does not appear in that film at all, and the blackmailer, played by Hiroki Matsukata, faces mostly different scenarios although some plot elements and characters are the same.

* Original title: Waga kyôkatsu no jinsei (わが恐喝の人生)
* Director: Kiyoshi Saeki
* Chiba’s role: Starring / Major supporting role
* Film availability: None / Review format: TV

Dragon Princess

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Dragon Princess (Japan, 1976)

One of the best Etsuko Shihomi films, also with one of the finest openings with Sonny Chiba fighting bad guys in an abandoned small church beaten by spaghetti western winds. Before the fight is over Chiba’s got a dagger in his eye. Cut to eye patched Chiba training his daughter, who grows up into Etsuko Shihomi during the OP credits, in snow in Los Angeles (!), to avenge her dad. A weaker film could crush under such a diamond opening, but this is Shihomi and co-star Yasuaki Kurata in top form.

The straight forward plot has a habit of abandoning every story thread it introduces (Chiba is killed off by the 20 minute mark, the story moves from USA to Japan at the same time, and a bad guy is organizing a martial arts tournament but every top contender, and himself, are killed off before the tournament even begins!) but that matters not as the film moves like a bullet train, packs truckloads of first grade karate action into 81 min and completes the package with Shunsuke Kikichi’s kick ass score. From gender political perspective it’s one of the finest films of its era/genre with Shihomi kicking major ass and no woman getting raped or stripped down (except in the American theatrical version which inserts a scene from Tokyo Emmanuelle in the middle of the film!). If you were to ask “what are fine women made of?”, this film’s answer would be “positive attitude and karate kicks”.

* Original title: Hissatsu onna kenshi (必殺女拳士)
* Director: Yutaka Kohira
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Japanese Cut: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs); US Cut: BCI DVD (Eng Dub)

The American version, which was distributed by Silverstein Films (who also brought Karate Warriors to US cinemas) features the following notable differences:

1) At 79 minutes it’s about 2 minutes shorter than the Japanese version. The first major difference is that it’s missing the New York opening, with crime montage and Chiba being recommended as the new karate instructor for the police force. Instead the US cut goes straight to the opening fight. The title screen has also been re-done.

2) Some of the opening crime montage later surfaces, inserted into a later scene when the assassins are assassinating the karate tournament contenders. Some of the assassination locations have changed as well (“Okinawa” is now “South America”), and there is a weird green color effect used in one shot in the US version.

3) A brief party/sex scene from Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno film Tokyo Emmanuelle (1975) has been inserted in the middle of the film. It comes during a night club scene where Kurata is drinking with Amatsu and suddenly the film cuts to a Nikkatsu actor dancing and shagging with Kumiko Taguchi! Silverstein Films must have disagreed about the film’s gender progressive approach and decided to make it a bit spicier!

There may also be other minor differences that I haven’t noticed. The score is the same as the Japanese version, and although the dubbed dialogue doesn’t always match the storyline is essentially the same (unlike The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge or The Bodyguard, where the dub altered major plot points).

Gendai onibabako: Satsu ai

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Gendai onibabako: Satsu ai (現代鬼婆考 殺愛) (Japan, 1973)

A 300 year old witch agrees to assassinate a dead-sick businessman and his ignorant sexy wife upon the former’s own request – the kills are to take place in separate locations at the same time. The granny then exits the same way she entered his office, with rope via 20th floor window! And it gets even better when you realize the granny is played by Sonny Chiba. Chiba soon takes his own handsome form and retreats to plan the hits with his karate killer sister (17 year old Etsuko Shihomi in her first role).

A decently insane fantasy / karate / murder thriller based on a Kazuo Koike manga, brought to the small screen as a 46 minute TV movie, the final one shown in the “Suspense Series” slot (Toei / Mainichi Broadcasting System). The script by Koike himself is fabulous, with twists like the businessman receiving a call from hospital that they made a mistake and he’s not dying from cancer after all, the kills set to take place in the afternoon at 02:02 (o-ni, o-ni, as for “demon in Japanese”) and Chiba promising to buy tasty bread for Shihomi as soon as all targets have been murdered!

The closest comparison point would probably be Wolfguy (1975), and although not as wild or graphic, this still packs a punch and manages to throw in some nudity (courtesy of Tomoko Mayama from the first Lone Wolf and Cub film). Oh and the scene where the cute as a button mini-skirt Shihomi takes down a roomful of men with karate… you’ll need a face massage to get the resulting smile to go down.

The title, Gendai onibabako: Satsu ai, roughly translates as “Modern Witch Tale: Murderous Love”.

Chiba!

Tomoko Mayama

Shihomi!

Emergency Line

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Emergency Line (Japan, 1976)

The last of the mid-70 action/detective shows with Sonny Chiba, this one makes an immediate impression with its grit and darkness. It’s the usual ‘group of detectives’ (Chiba, Shihomi, Tani, Masaaki Daimon, Tamio Kawachi, Seigo Inoue, Yuriko Hishimi) pattern, but without jokes. The opening episode has a bitter war vet (Eiji Okada) trying to assassinate a foreign little girl flown to Japan for medical operation, and another story has Chiba, taking a bullet in his leg in the first scene, trying to penetrate a top floor condo where the shooter is holding hostages. There are also smaller delights like usual yakuza crook Eiji Go quest starring as a narcotics cop, and Toei’s regular evil gaijin Osman Yusuf as murderous diplomat in an episode that concludes with one of Chiba’s most explosive karate sequences as Chiba decides to ignore diplomatic immunity and fight his way though 20 bodyguards. Another stunt highlight involves Chiba chasing criminals. After his car falls off the cliff (!), he climbs on top of a train, then jumps down when the train is crossing a bridge, landing on the moving car’s roof, only to slip, grab the rear bumper, pull out his gun and shoot the tires. Bravo! As usual, Chiba and Japan Action Club were in charge of the action.

Not every episode is as exciting as those, though. Despite having more action than Blazing Dragnet, this is the most talkative of the four shows. There are also a couple of dullish drama/thriller stories, and Etsuko Shihomi is largely wasted in a role that offers her little to do. The rest of the cast is ok, with Tani, who has developed some charisma since Key Hunter (1968-1973) faring the best. The episodes take a bit of patience since they often reveal the gist only at the end, which is interesting but a bit odd since these aren’t strictly mystery stories. The show’s ending is exceptionally powerful and each episode closes with a beautiful theme song and closing credits montage. Gritty and atmospheric, this is a very worthy closing product for Chiba’s detective show streak.

* Original title: Daihijosen (大非常線)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Series availability: None / Review format: TV

Detectives. Eiji Go on the left.

The series really is quite gritty

Chiba’s had it

Osman Yusuf. This episode features the best role I’ve seen him in. I’ve really become a bit of a fan. He was born in the Ottoman Empire in 1920 but moved to Japan at a young age (his younger brother Osman Toruko was born in Japan and become a Japanese professional wrester). He was working on TV and movies since the 1940s, although all the roles I’ve seen him in (60s and 70s) have been small roles. He died in 1982.

Stunt action

Find Chiba in the frame!

Shihomi and Tani

Chiba and Shihomi

Blazing Dragnet

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Blazing Dragnet (Japan, 1975-1976)

The third series in Sonny Chiba’s mid-70s streak of action packed detective shows, following The Bodyguard (1974) and The Gorilla Seven (1975), all produced for NTV where Chiba had his on TV slot in 1974-1976. This follows the usual Japanese cop series pattern with a team of detectives as the focus, also utilized in the previous two shows, with a slight new twist. The detectives now belong to a secret mobile unit, all having dull day jobs (Chiba and Hayato Tani are office clerks, Shihomi and Gajiro Sato traffic officers) as a cover and just waiting for a call by boss Nobuo Kaneko to jump in a travel van and head where ever crime is taking place.

This is the least action packed of the four shows, investing more on decently written detective storylines, though there are occasional shootouts and karate kicks by Chiba and Shihomi. An entertaining show, easily better than The Gorilla Seven, despite ultimately underutilizing the mobile police concept and not featuring anything unforgettable. Chiba’s beautiful theme is one of the show’s assets, always restoring the viewer’s hope even after a weaker episode as the song plays over end credit montage of Chiba wandering on city streets.

* Original title: Moeru sosamo (燃える捜査網)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (no subs) (June 2018) / Review format: TV

Kaneko briefing Chiba

Team meeting

Chiba and Tani in their day jobs

Tani on the job

Chiba kicking some ass

Shihomi kicking some ass

Occasional excellent cinematography

Gajiro Sato (Dragon Princess) restraining his usual comedy act. He’s a bit silly but doesn’t do anything too irritating here.

End credits montage

last but not least!

The Gorilla Seven

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The Gorilla Seven (Japan, 1975)

An initially disappointing follow-up to Sonny Chiba’s badass 1974 TV shows The Bodyguard (*). Chiba leads a private 7 man team specializing in miscellaneous protection and crime solving missions. Jiro Chiba, Etsuko Shihomi and Yuki Meguro return from The Bodyguard, Isao Natsuyagi, Akira Nishikino and Maria Elizabeth are new additions to the team. JAC is responsible for the stunts as usual.

Despite the great premise, the show suffers from excessive poor comedy and a laidback tone that is in stark contrast with the violent, even nihilist The Bodyguard. The storylines tend to be very forgettable, and so are the characters who spend half of their time fooling around. Shihomi’s character supposed to be a ninja descendant, but that is merely a bit of trivia you’d never figure out based on what her character is doing in the series.

There is much less fighting than in The Bodyguard, and too much of it is left for the less capable members such as Meguro and Natsuyagi. As a slight compensation, there’s more focus on stunts, including Chiba grabbing on to a plane about take off (he did the same stunt in Key Hunter) or hanging from a ropeway wires. Not all of the stunts are as exciting, though.

Thankfully halfway into the 26 episode show the crew seem to have realised they need to get a grip, and they do. The last 10 episodes are quite enjoyable, with better action and better stories, the highlight being a terrific episode that co-starts Masashi Ishibashi as a hitman armed with a machine gun. Other cool episodes include Shihomi going undercover, and a storyline with Jiro where two rich douche bags are hiring proxy fighters (and bikers) and betting money on whose fighter survives.

Big name quest stars are quite few in the show, and most of them appear during the late episodes. Pinky Violence star Yumiko Katayama makes a 2 scene appearance in one of the two episodes directed by Teruo Ishii, Yuriko Hishimi has a central role in one episode, and Roman Porno actress Yuri Yamashina plays Ishibashi’s girlfriend.

It’s a shame the show is so uneven since it does come with rewards towards the end. In case one starts getting bored after the first few episodes, I recommend jumping straight to episode 17 (perhaps via episodes 11 and 13) as from there on almost every episode is a good one. There is no harm in doing that, thanks to nonexistent character development and lack of any kind of story connections between the episodes.

* Chiba had his own TV slot on NTV in 1974-1976. He starred in five shows in total starting with the karate actioner The Bodyguard (1974), followed by the action/crime shows The Gorilla 7, Blazing Dragnet (1975-1976) and Emergency Line (1976), and finally the family drama Nanairo tongarashi (1976).

* Original title: The Gorilla 7 (ザ・ゴリラ7)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Starring Role
* Availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs) (December 2017). Review format: TV.

One of the worst episodes. The Gorillas use small radio-controlled planes to…

… fight gangsters who are comedic idiots

Thankfully there’s good stuff too, like Chiba with a gun

Jiro with a bike

Shihomi vs. Ishibashi

Chiba vs. Ishibashi

Some of the stunts are cool

Shihomi looking good

Soundtrack

Robot Keiji: The Movie

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Robot Keiji: The Movie (Japan, 1973)

Despite the title, this is not so much a “movie” as a theatrical 25 minute edit combining scenes from multiple episodes from the Robot Detective TV series. It was created for the Toei Cartoon Festival, an anime and superhero film event held by Toei during holiday seasons and aimed at children. The original TV series, which ran 26 episodes, was an early entry in the Metal Hero genre and followed a robot detective who would dress in casual clothes on his free time. Sonny Chiba appeared in one episode, and his brother Jiro had a role as a (human) detective. The Movie Version compiles selected scenes from episodes 1-9, 11 and 12. As such, it’s quite difficult to follow unless you’ve seen the original TV series as there is clearly too much content crammed into 25 minutes. It has also been cropped from its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio to theatrical 2.35:1, which causes major amounts of information to be cut off from top and bottom. That being said, the original TV series seems fun.

* Original title: Robotto keiji: gekijoban (ロボット刑事: 劇場版)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Cameo (in the movie version)
* Film availability: None. Review format: TV
* TV series availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

The detective’s car

I can’t stop laughing at this bad “guy” (bad robot?) who kidnapped the lady…

As you can see, the framing is often way too tight vertically

Jiro and Sonny